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The Ranking Colleges Hate the Most

August 23, 2005

University administrators have a love-hate relationship with the annual rankings released this time of year by U.S. News & World Report, Peterson's, Newsweek and others. In speeches and op-eds, they complain that the ratings use flawed methodology and prompt institutions to skew their priorities to perform better in them. Yet some among them, at least, are the institutions that skew their priorities to perform better in the rankings, and they are often quick to trumpet the news when they fare well.

But there is one ranking each year that colleges truly despise -- Princeton Review's list of the top party schools (okay, they probably also dislike the company's list called "Reefer Madness" ). And this year's "winner" of the party school designation, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, has continued the grand tradition of objecting vehemently to the honor.

As Princeton Review named the Madison party central on Monday, among the review's 57 other categories, the university responded with a news release of its own headlined "UW-Madison shows progress on student drinking."

"High-risk drinking continues to be a top health issue on college campuses across the country," Chancellor John D. Wiley said, before slamming the Princeton Review report. "Junk science that results in a day of national media coverage does not do this issue justice. At Wisconsin, we will continue our multi-faceted approach to the problem."

The Wisconsin statement trumpets the work of a program called Policy, Alternatives, Community and Education, which it says has shown "measurable, positive" results in reducing student drinking despite what it calls "Wisconsin's entrenched culture as one of the heaviest-drinking states in the nation."

Also on Monday, The Washington Monthly, an iconoclastic policy magazine that has been a harsh critic of U.S. News and other college rankings, released its own. The introduction to the magazine's "first annual" ranking suggests that by focusing on (probably flawed) measures of academic excellence, U.S. News and other entities focus on the wrong things. Institutions should be judged, the Monthly argues, by how well they are putting the huge sums of taxpayer funds they receive to good use for society -- by being "engines of social mobility," advancing knowledge and economic growth, and encouraging "an ethic of service." 

"While other guides ask what colleges can do for students," the magazine says, "we ask what colleges are doing for the country."

By using very different measures of excellence, The Washington Monthly's rankings produce very different results. Many of the top performers in the U.S. News and other prominent rankings fare less well in this one; Harvard and Princeton, which topped the U.S. News list released Friday, finish 16th and 44th, respectively. Public institutions are far better represented in the upper tier of its rankings, and many elite colleges lagged, the magazine said, because of the emphasis Washington Monthly placed on national service.

The magazine also said its rankings would be greatly improved if American higher education made its operations more transparent. "In future years, we would prefer to expand our criteria and develop an even more comprehensive measure of the qualities by which colleges and universities enrich our country. There's only one problem: Many of these data aren't available."

It noted, for instance, that most institutions decline to let the National Survey of Student Engagement, which collects valuable information about the academic performance and behavior of students at individual colleges, make the information public. 

The magazine's report closes with a wish -- that institutions change their behavior in response to its rankings in the same way, it asserts, that they have adapted to move up in the U.S. News rankings. "Imagine, then, what would happen if thousands of schools were suddenly motivated to try to boost their scores on The Washington Monthly College Rankings," the magazine said.

"They'd start enrolling greater numbers of low-income students and putting great effort into ensuring that these students graduate. They'd encourage more of their students to join the Peace Corps or the military. They'd intensify their focus on producing more Ph.D. graduates in science and engineering. and as a result, we all would benefit from a wealthier, freer, more vibrant, and democratic country."

 

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